WILLISTON, N.D. – Paul and Marcia Whitcomb thought they’d be temporary North Dakotans, working in the oilfield to earn money and someday returning to Arkansas.
But now the couple and their four children are permanent Williston residents, working oilfield jobs that will be around long after drilling is over and finally living in a house after two years in an RV.
“We couldn’t have the jobs we have or live this way or live in a house this nice anywhere else we went in the country right now,” Paul said.
But getting to this point required some sacrifices, a fact the family knew when they decided to move to North Dakota. Paul, formerly an over-the-road truck driver, had delivered tanks for hydraulic fracturing to the area and knew about the housing shortage.
“I knew that the living situation would be difficult,” Paul said.
The family was excited to give it a try, though, because it meant Paul could come off the road and be home every night.
“I was tired of being alone raising four kids on my own,” Marcia said.
In November 2011, Paul began an entry-level oilfield job working with a fracking crew. The family lived in a 33-foot RV in a Williston RV park, which ended up being home for about two years.
The RV had two bedrooms and each family member had a bed, but it was cramped quarters for six people, four small dogs, a cat, a bird and a rat.
For the first year, the RV park did not have a shower house or laundry facility. Fourteen-year-old Angel said her long hair used to freeze in the winter when the family would go take showers at her father’s workplace.
Paul recalled having to thaw the front door for at least 20 minutes in the winter before it would open.
“Living in an RV is extraordinarily difficult in the winter,” Paul said. “It is survivable but it is not for the faint of heart.”
The family started looking for homes in Williston after Paul got a new job, working as a lease operator for Mitchell’s Oil Field Service. But even with oilfield wages, one income was not enough to afford Williston housing prices.
Last August, Marcia began working the same job, which involves taking regular measurements at oil well sites, keeping records and doing light maintenance. Unlike Paul’s previous fracking job, which is temporary, lease operators will be necessary for the life of the oil wells.
“Even if they said stop drilling and fracking tomorrow, our jobs would definitely continue on,” Paul said.
In order for both parents to work, they needed help transporting the kids to and from school and helping with child care. Williston schools do not provide bus service and child care centers have long waiting lists.
Paul’s brother, Ryan Whitcomb, moved in with the family to help with the kids. Ryan, from Washington state, can’t work due to a back condition, but his disability checks were not sufficient to live on his own.
“We needed the help and he was in a position where he could help and he needed a better living environment to put his money away,” Paul said.
The family found a house in Williston to rent last fall, a four-bedroom, three-bath duplex with a den they use as a fifth bedroom. They moved in last November, and are still getting used to having so much space.
Paul Allen, 7, happy to have his own room away from his sisters, often rearranges his furniture just because he can. Six-year-old Madison likes to have more room to play indoors in the winter and 12-year-old Tearsten is glad they had room for a big Christmas tree this year.
“Living in an RV for two years makes you really appreciate living in a house,” Marcia said. “We are so blessed to be in this house.”
The family who rented the home previously broke their lease because they could no longer afford the $4,000 rent, Paul said. The wife couldn’t work because they didn’t have child care or a way to transport kids to school, he said.
Many factors led to their decision to stay in Williston permanently, Paul said, including their good jobs with opportunity for advancement and future opportunities for their children.
They enjoy going to Lewis and Clark State Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the summers, and they’re getting used to North Dakota winters.
“We decided we like it here,” Marcia said.